Issue 114 brings you death and hope. A shorter round-up of writers than usual, these three pieces hold their own and carry a strong message. Each a moral dilemma, they will leave you wondering where you stand. Kick up your feet and let CJ Clayton-Dippolito, GC veteran Richard Godwin, and our Editor’s Pick for “must read twice” author Brendan O’Brien take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.
Bruce — the bachelor, the firefighter, the terminal cancer victim, the best friend — was a dead man walking. Who were we to force him down a painful plank of torture? The kidnapping was planned at his bedside weeks after the diagnosis. We shared bland food and shed tears. Curt was opposed from the very beginning but slowly turned the corner at Bruce’s incessant requests.
Curt and I change into our trench coats as the elevator ascends. Our eyes meet and we nod. Curt’s forehead is shiny with sweat. When the doors open we smooth the mustaches glued above our lips. The disguises make us feel silly when we find the night nurse asleep, her face smashing the keyboard, rows of alsdkjfthioqerbvsht racing across her computer.
Curt’s cousin is an orderly and gets us down the service elevator. Our getaway vehicle – which is really Curt’s wife’s minivan – is ready and waiting. We get Bruce home and help him into his fire uniform that, over the years, has become saturated with the smoke of others’ heirlooms. I stare at the glossy X shimmering at the end of the sidewalk. An army of red gas cans stinks up the van. Curt will have to get it cleaned.
We hand Bruce his helmet. He flips down the visor and reminds us to flick on three. He draws in his trembling palm as if diagramming a pass play. With a rusty squeak, he opens the spigot on the front of his house. He waves and struggles to make the garden hose stretch.
After sixty seconds Curt and I each light our match.
We count to three.
The fire dances across the kerosene soaked concrete and eats at the house just as it would in a Mel Gibson movie. I’m past feeling guilty. I’m beyond feelings of murderous self-loathing. These were all dispelled during our bedside planning with Bruce. I feel proud that Bruce’s best friends could help him go out on his own terms. I feel so good that I don’t even notice Curt, wide-eyed and shivering, his flickering match still pinched between thumb and forefinger.
Brendan writes from Wisconsin, where he does Public Relations writing, roots for Notre Dame, and shares cheese platters with his pool jumping Australian Shepherd, Montana.
My agent doesn’t think my last painting passes muster. Called it a piece of shit. I can hear his loud drawl now.
“Bernie, look, you gotta realise I made you. Without me, you’d be nothing, just another brush pushing cocksucker, so do us a favour and come up with something original, for Chrissake. I got my wife busting my balls, I got overheads, and you give me this shit. Think back to the old days when everyone wanted to buy your works, when Sotheby’s could get a queue lining up for you and forget this trash.”
That’s Lewis for you. He owns a huge labelling factory. That’s how he started out, a sharp kid with his eye on a fast buck. Labels. Loves Warhol, calls art the new branding.
He doesn’t like my landscapes.
I’ve been doing some traditional landscapes, and I love them. Deepening shades and mysteries in the wood.
I pause to consider. I take in the brushstrokes. There, beneath the trees I’ve painted, you can almost see someone hiding. A killer, maybe. There’s the glint of metal under the anguished heavy boughs.
What flesh may yield its solemn cries to the lacerations of his blade? What unwashed blood? There are no police in the landscape. For who could police the unknown? It is lawless as the first frontier. A rent garment in the wind.
I can hear the phone ringing. I walk through the empty hallway and unhook it from the wall.
“What took you so fuckin’ long, Bernie? I been calling till the frigging receiver nearly puked.”
“I was working.”
“Good to fuckin’ hear it. Have you come up with a saleable item?”
“I think so.”
“Meet me at six tonight.”
The line went dead. That’s Lewis for you. Never gives you time to get out of an engagement. I’ve gotten used to his ways.
He did make me a household name with my painting Fluke, then Whirlwind got me my first million. After that there was no looking back. Except that I just wanted to paint landscapes.
You see, it’s all about seeing. Art. You can see things in a landscape. They say Leonardo made a lifetime’s study just out of seeing. Looking. The whirl of steam as it rises and breaks into particles, emerging from a hot cup of coffee. The shape and curl of a woman’s hands.
The problem with Lewis is that he just doesn’t see anything. Except money, that is. I sometimes think he doesn’t like art.
But I see.
As I look from my studio window, I see a woman hide a letter in her handbag and assume an expression of happiness as her lover comes towards her.
I see the unusual curve of a beam of light as it breaks beneath the surface of some rubbish.
And that’s what I paint. The wet oil slapping onto the canvas. It’s all part of the experience.
That’s what Lewis doesn’t understand. Lewis, the man who smells of money, the dealer with a penchant for hookers. Word has it, he covers them in his labels before he fucks them and shouts out ‘I am the commodity King’ as he comes. Branding their flesh must be the biggest turn on of all.
We meet in a crowded restaurant. As usual, Lewis has a cigar in his huge mouth, blowing blue clouds everywhere.
“What the fuck you painted Bernie?”
I look at him with his fat neck, the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like something stuck in jelly but I can’t figure out what that something is.
“I’m still working on it.”
“I made you,” he reminds me, pointing with his cigar. “Without me the Bernie Maples name would mean nothing. Don’t you forget that.”
“How can I?” I look at his Adam’s apple bob and it hits me. “In fact, Lewis, the idea involves a reworking of the Garden of Eden.”
I can see he doesn’t get what I’m talking about but he likes the wording. Lewis will always reject an idea that sounds traditional, but if I say something is a reworking, he’ll take to it.
Oh, I know how to work him.
He takes his cigar out of his mouth, fingering its fat rotund edge, a strand of saliva stretching from his sticky finger.
“I like it.” He pops his prop back in.
I weigh him up. “The idea is to represent the story today, the whole Adam and Eve thing, but with the violence of the climate of fear we live in.”
He slaps me on the shoulder.
“This is it! I knew you’d come up with it. Adam and Eve? I like it!”
“And it’s a living canvas.”
“A living canvas?”
“Yes. It’s a surprise.”
“I always said you were my best find. Give up these fuckin’ landscapes and make us some fuckin’ money! Waitress!” He orders a round of drinks. “Look at that ass!”
Art. For Lewis it’s just something to make money from. He understands nothing about it. Tonight I’ll prepare the canvas. Tomorrow I’ll invite him round to see it.
He sounds surprised at my phone call.
“You been painting all fuckin’ night?”
“And bring an open-necked shirt.”
“What the fuck you talking about?”
“I want to take a picture of you. It’s all part of the show.”
“The show must go on.” He laughs and hangs up.
I clean my tools.
I wash the stains from them.
When he arrives, I’m ready. I’m going to redeem painting and I know just how to do it.
Lewis is wearing a white shirt open at the collar. He stubs out his cigar on the landing. He never smokes around paintings.
Gotta look after these babies is his motto. Any other time he flouts any smoking ban he comes across.
“‘So what we got?”
As he speaks, his Adam’s apple bobs up and down obscenely.
“I’m just going to get my camera,” I say, placing him with his back to the canvas. I pad across the silent floor and approach him from behind. He can’t hear me. I neatly slice his throat with a long knife. Blood spurts across the studio, landing on the far wall.
Lewis starts to choke. He drops to his knees, making strange gurgling noises.
I pick his head up and point at the wall, showing him the shower his blood made.
“Look, you’ve just done a Jackson Pollock.”
Lewis always said how he liked Jackson Pollock.
“Welcome to the living canvas,” I say, turning him round and lifting off the sheet I’d draped over the easel earlier.
The jugular I’d severed pumps away furiously as I aim for the white surface. He sprays for a while before collapsing.
“Never heard you so quiet, Lewis. Glad you like it.”
I remove his Adam’s apple and place it at the centre of the painting, tempting the viewer to pick it off the canvas.
Then I cut him into pieces and add the bits. I suppose you could say it’s a montage. I think it really catches Lewis’s true likeness. There’s something so fleshy about it. It’s an abstract, expressionist piece. I’ve entitled it Dealer. There’s enough of him to make a second, too, and I think I’ll call it The Dollar Bill Ain’t That Pretty.
Think I’ll get myself a new agent.
One who likes landscapes.
Richard writes from London, where he writes plays and other fiction, and he tweets here.
Vegan, My Ass
I woke up dreaming of the blueberry yogurt that I’d hidden behind the mayo. Jeff hates yogurt, it makes him think of belching goats. His mom showed up five months ago from Portland, hauling so much seat-to-ceiling, cross-country crap that we knew immediately that her idea of visit meant way more than the customary week-to-ten days. Every day, all day, she walks past me, staring at nothing, wearing this oddly sedate smile on her face. She is unmoved by the fact that my belly is about as big as it’s going to get and we’re all crammed into a two-bedroom slab.
The worst part is the tiptoeing, her labored attempts at silent invisibility. The clinging to walls, the slipping around corners, the stifled scraps of conversation that are always followed by a softly shutting door. I think she thinks if she’s quiet and doesn’t speak then we’ll forget she’s here. Not likely. Last week, I brought the crib in from the garage, unassembled, still in the box and leaned it against the living room wall to let her know that: Hey! I know you’re here. Even if you don’t talk, I can still see you. But it didn’t make a dent, just one more massive thing to tiptoe past and around. I finally caved last night and put it together in the corner of our bedroom. I hate to admit it but it looks kind of cute in there.
Jeff thinks it’s midlife depression or menopause. He says she used to be happy. Perky, even. I’ve scanned photos for evidence of this alleged perk and come to the conclusion that he’s filtering – remembering fondly. Because all I see in those old pictures is the same limp smile. Not sadness, exactly. More like ennui buried under a veneer of Aquanet and busy sweaters. Still, I brought the subject of hormone therapy up to her once, casual like, to maybe throw her some kind of line. She walked away mid-sentence, mumbling something about the risks of ovarian cancer and the benefits of tofu. Jeff says to give her more time, the change is hard. Yeah, well, don’t I know it…because it’s four a.m. and I really wanted that fucking yogurt.
CJ writes from the midwest, where she works toward a Master’s in Fine Arts and dreams of running away with Paul McCartney.